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Zills For Beginners



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The Sagat

   The sagat, as they are called in Arabic, (or zills in Turkish) are small cymbals that are attached to the fingers and played either within a musical group or while dancing. I've also seen them played by audience members with live music. The zills can be one of the hardest parts of Middle Eastern dance because the dancer is not only required to maintain his or her grace and coordination, but he or she is also required to effectively embellish the music. This makes the sagat not merely another prop but an actual musical instrument and great care must be taken to remember this. Poorly played zills can break what would otherwise be a wonderful dance performance. So it is a good idea to become proficient enough with them before you perform in front of an audience as those on-stage nerves could hamper your ability to play them effectively.

   Finding a good set of zills can be a frustrating experience. They come in many sizes, weights and even differing shapes. These factors determine the pitch of the zills and in some cases the tone quality. Student zills can be purchased from anywhere to $5 to $12. I personally wouldn't recommend student issue light weight sagat even for a beginner. If you spend a good deal of time learning to play with light weight and/or poor quality sagat, making a transition to something heavier might cause more annoyance in the future than starting out with a good set. If you have an aversion to higher pitches I would go with a heavier weight from the start as well. You wouldn't play the piano if the sound of it made you want to poke your eardrums out would you? However, if you are just giving them a test run, a student set is a good inexpensive way to do so.

Getting Started

   Let's start with how to hold them. The sagat are secured to the thumb and middle fingers of both hands with elastic. It is best to use small safety pins to secure the elastic because the elastic will stretch over time. However, if you don't mind re-stitching the elastic every now and then, you can sew the elastic together. It is a very good idea to make sure they are tight enough to endure movement and sweat. You don't want them slipping off or flying into an unsuspecting audience. You will most likely have to turn them toward each other slightly so you can play them comfortably. Because everyone is different, you might want to experiment with them some before you really start to play them to make sure you have them set so that you can play them with the most comfort. You can do this by playing a 1 & 2 & pattern a couple of times. If you notice they aren't striking each other evenly enough, make an adjustment and try again.

    Next, you'll want to explore the different types of sounds you can make with the zills. You can muffle the sound by cupping your remaining fingers over the one on your middle finger, you can get more of a ringing tone by striking them together without muffling them and then holding them apart or you can strike the edge of one to the inside of the other to make more of a clicking sound. In some cases you can also put your hands together and clap the sagat together. If you reduce the amount of distance between your fingers at the beginning of the movement and increase the speed, you will get less of a ring and more of the clacking sound you hear commonly. These are a fun instrument because there are many different types of sound you can get from them with very small adjustments.

Dums and Teks

Within Middle Eastern rhythms there are defined accented and  non-accented sounds. It is the combination of these sounds that helps one identify the name of the rhythm and in many cases where the rhythm comes from and therefore what dance is appropriate. This is where Dums and Teks come in. Dum signifies a heavy, accented sound and Tek signifies a sharper accented sound. You'll also often see and hear teka or tek-a. For example, the beledi rhythm is counted out as:

1 &, 2 & a, 3 & a, 4 (& a)

the same rhythm using the accent indicators is:

Dum  Dum, tek-a tek, Dum  tek-a,  tek

However, if you were just looking at notes on a staff and had no indication as to whether there was an emphasis on any of the notes, you would most likely place emphasis on each beat. But that would alter the actual structure of this rhythm. Count out the rhythm above, but say 1, 2, 3 and 4 loudly and the rest of the rhythm softly.

Dominant Hand

    Our next step is to find your dominant hand. Usually, your dominant hand is the hand with which you write. Not everyone uses a dominant hand, but I will explain below why it is important to use one. First, play a gallop pattern ( & a 1, & a 2, & a 3, & a 4  emulating the sound of horses' hooves) without worrying about which hand plays the various parts of the rhythm. Now, use the hand you write with to start each set of the pattern. This would be as follows:

(right hand) r  l  r    r  l  r    r  l  r    r  l  r

(left hand) l  r  l    l  r  l    l  r  l    l  r  l

   You should notice that the notes played by your dominant hand are actually slightly more accented than those played by your inferior hand. If you don't notice a difference repeat this a few times and listen very closely. This is important because playing this way makes sure your accents lie on on the beat of a measure. So, 1, 2, 3 and 4 of each measure will be stronger than the filler parts of the rhythm you are playing. Try counting the gallop pattern while you play (it's ok to start slowly) and pay attention to where your dominant hand falls within the rhythm. If you still don't hear the accent, try using the other hand and see if there is a difference. Or you may notice there in fact was a stronger sound from the first hand you tried.

   You may want to stick with playing the gallop pattern slowly for a bit before you move on to make sure you get your dominant hand working correctly. Then, I recommend speeding up at small intervals until you can play quickly while maintaining an even pattern.

   When you feel comfortable working with your dominant hand try playing the beledi rhythm as follows (Dums are annotated with capital letters):

(right hand) R  R     l  r  l     R     r  l  r

(left hand) L  L     r  l  r     L     l  r  l

   If you are having trouble keeping your hands coordinated, separate each segment of the rhythm and play it on its own. Start out playing only the first two Dums on your dominant hand. Then move to the second segment and play the tek-a-tek, etc. Or you can play your dominant hand and substitute rests for your inferior hand. This would go as follows:

(right hand) R  R     -  r  -     R     r  -  r

(left hand) L  L     -  l  -     L     l  -  l

   In this case it may help to think of the circular nature of what you are playing because this particular rhythm both begins and ends with your dominant hand.


   Music is the movement of sound through time. When a musician reads a piece of music, one of the first things he or she looks at is its time signature and any tempo markings made available. Without these guidelines interpreting a piece of music in the manner desired by its composer would be absolutely impossible. As dancers, we translate these interpretations into movement but as dancers with sagat we must bring that interpretation full circle and re-translate it into sound. So it is very important that you play at the same tempo (speed) as the music you are accompanying and that you play rhythm combinations that fit into the time signature of the music. Sounds simple right? Wait, it gets a bit more difficult.

   Theoretically, you could play the gallop pattern with any piece of music and throughout any piece of music provided you played at the correct tempo. For example, a 3/4 (3 beats per measure) song would allow for roughly three sets of gallops per measure. I say roughly because the gallop starts before the actual measure with a pick-up, but I won't bore you with music theory. However, to do so would be to completely ignore the structure of the song. It would also most likely cause your musicians or audience members to steal your zills and melt them down to end their suffering. So, not only must you play with the music in time, you must also play with the music in structure. Which brings me to...

       ...When to Play

   Not every song calls for sagat. And it may seem impossible to find something that really feels appropriate for playing them at first. However, an easy way to find out if a song is appropriate for zill playing or not is to listen for the sound of them in the recording itself. This can not only serve as a way to determine appropriateness, but it can also give you a clue as to what patterns will work with the music in question. The one thing you want to avoid is playing them throughout the entire song without any rests. In music silence is just as important as sound. If the music stops completely, it's a good indicator that your sagat should also be quiet. If someone is singing a non-repetitive set of verses, that may also be a good indicator. In a song with a lot of repetitive verses it may be appropriate to play them quietly as an accompaniment.

Your Next Step?

   Personally, I think it's a good idea to start moving with the zills as soon as possible. It's very easy to play them when you're sitting down or standing still. The trick is in the movement. If you've been studying the dance long enough to be considered intermediate to advanced, you will probably want to start out doing beginner movements until you feel comfortable with those. Learning to play the sagat and dance at the same time can almost feel like learning to dance all over again and it can be a frustrating process. For more information about moving with the zills you can read my other article, "Zills In Space."


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